During this period of mass school closures around the country and around the world, teacher Jesse Hagopian is going to share his experience with educating his kids at home and helping social movements to promote public health. You can follow these posts at www.IAmAnEducator.com
The coronavirus pandemic has had an unprecedented impact on world health, economics, politics and education. More than 300 million students world wide are now missing weeks of school. The Seattle area is the epicenter of coronavirus in the United States, with some 388 confirmed cases and 35 fatalities in King County as of Saturday. In an effort to stop the spread of the virus, Gov. Jay Inslee banned all gatherings of people larger than 250. With some 2,000 students at Garfield High School where I teach, it made us all uneasy this week that we were at great risk of contracting and spreading the virus.
On Wednesday, March 11, I was sitting at my desk in between classes at school when an email from the Seattle Public Schools appeared. I was working on finishing a lesson so I didn’t immediately open the email. But when I heard whooping and hollering in the hallways, I decided I had better read the news. The e-mail had announced that the entire Seattle school district would close its doors for the 52,000 pupils for a minimum of two weeks starting the following day.
The clamor in the hallway had been my 6th period 12th grade English Language Arts students who heard the news and were celebrating the coming break from school. As class began and the initial amazement of school being canceled set in, students’ elation turned to apprehension. I tried to cut the tension with a joke: at least the closure of school would cure the well-known disease commonly referred to as “Senioritis.” Then we quickly moved into more serious discussions about who was most at risk for contracting COVID-19, the importance of social distancing to staying healthy, strategies for keeping older relatives healthy, and the social dimensions of how coronavirus is exacerbated by inequality. Students were outraged to learn about the lack of federal paid sick leave, the millions of uninsured Americans, and the failure of the government to administer an adequate number of COVID-19 tests. And as much as many had initially been excited to miss some school, the reality of many students having trouble accessing school meals and other services hit them hard.
At one point I shared with them the quote, “We are only as safe as the least insured among us” and asked them what they thought it meant. One of my recent state champion basketball players broke it down for the class: “It’s like our team is only as good as our least skilled player so we have to help everyone on the team get better.” I was just beaming at my student’s brilliance. I said, “Not only can shoot the jumper, he can also slam dunk some knowledge!”
I sent my students out the door with the mission of working on their “Issue Anthology” project that asks them to pick a social issue and develop a presentation on the root causes of the issue, the symptoms that emerge as a result of the issue, analyze of four pieces of literature that relate to the issue, and make an original piece of art in response to the literature. I’m exited to see these presentations when we return. But I was also very nervous to see my students leave the building knowing that, especially for the homeless and low-income kids, this was going to be a very difficult time. We have something like 150 homeless students at Garfield High School—and there are 40,000 homeless students across Washington State—who rely on the schools for not only meals, but showers, laundry, healthcare, trauma counseling, and more.
At that point I thought we were out of school for two weeks. Then Gov. Jay Inslee announced on Thursday that all school in the region would be closed through at least April 24—and then on Friday he extended the closures to the entire state!
With my own two elementary aged boys home from school for at least six weeks, I quickly realized that I would have to transition from being a schoolteacher to being a homeschool teacher. On Friday we began our homeschool day with health class and a discussion about how to stop the transmission of germs with good hand washing practices–including the recommendation to sing the hook of Prince’s song Kiss and when you’re done you have washed long enough (at least 20 seconds). I was smiling all day when I heard them say, “You don’t have to be rich to be my girl.” We also read this comic for explaining the virus to kids and this info graphic for combating racism against Asian people from King County Public Health, explaining that viruses don’t discriminate and neither should we. As they explain, the “2019 novel coronavirus started in Wuhan, China. That’s just geography. Having Chinese ancestry– or any other ancestry — does not make a person more vulnerable to this illness”
The next class was literature and my older son read, Jason Reynolds and Dr. Ibram Kendi’s Young Adult book Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You and a YA novel called Black Brother, Black Brother. Next, we transitioned to music class and worked on mastering, “When the Saints Go Marching In” on the piano. After music came PE and my kids joined a few neighborhood friends outside for game of hide-and-go-seek. After a hand wash, we transitioned to social studies and watched Democracy Now’s segment on the 17-year-old boy from our area who developed the most comprehensive online database for tracking COVID 19, used by reporters and governments around the world. My kids were amazed that a young person could have such an impact on world events and be so helpful in the struggle against the virus. We also talked about the injustice of billionaires hoarding wealth while millions of people don’t have healthcare and about how lucky our family is that I can stay home with them during this health crisis–even as many families can’t be with their kids because they have to work or else they will miss paychecks, could get fired, and even be evicted from their homes.
We also heard from activist friends in Seattle about this new organizing effort to deliver food to families in need. The website for the coronavirus Mutual Aid Solidarity Network says:
“We are coordinating food and supply drop offs to people’s front doors. Please use this form if you would like to help make deliveries. Thank you!!”
You can also make donations to help low income families get groceries here: https://www.gofundme.com/f/covid19-survival-fund-for-the-people
What my kids learned on their first coronavirus no school day was that while social distancing is an important part of life now, it doesn’t have to mean distancing ourselves from each other’s humanity.